Social Structures in Games

I am currently reading a role-playing game (RPG) that has a very structured set of rules around social encounters.  Players have the ability to take on the role of characters that are master social manipulators.  Opponents can be defeated in a social context just as easily as they can with weapons or magic.  I have played many games like this in the past and it has me wondering how many people actually use these rules as written?  I know that I read through these structures and rules but rarely refer back to them in game.  As the Games Master (GM) I usually take this sort of material in the stride of the game, including powers that are used in this manner by players.

RPG’s should have all social interactions role-played

This is a sentiment a lot of gamers.  Especially old school gamers where the social structures of games were very hit and miss.  I also feel like these are good guidelines for games.  That said, I can also see that there are many, many, exceptions to this rule.  That is why these structured social rules need to exist.  Take for example the player who is pretty quiet but loves playing noble heroes that people are drawn to.  I have seen these players sit in groups trying to get a word in edgeways and being ignored when they do speak because they do not have the force of personality that their character does.  As a GM I have spoken to groups about how these player’s characters are the driving force with their personality and charm but other players ignore this.  So it is just that a structured set of rules allow this to be played out.  The charismatic character can then have an effect on the game.  He calls out to the evil minion’s henchman and pleads with his better nature to turn to the good.  A roll of the dice attached to skill and/or attribute allows the game to determine the outcome, not the player’s ability to convince the GM.

social structure in RPG

Regulation of social interactions makes things predictable

Social interactions in the “real world” can be seriously unpredictable.  I have spent the better part of half a century on this Earth and the ins and outs of personality and social interaction still catch me by surprise.  Daily.  Maybe I just do not have the correct focus on my skills!  Many gamers will think that this predictability makes a game somewhat less fun though.  I can’t see this though.  In games where you can fine-tune your characters to be able to be the best at fighting or magic, why should social interaction be any different?  In nearly every game that I read where advancement is tied to overcoming obstacles, they are very clear that overcoming is not just through combat.  I like that it can make things more predictable in a game. It allows the player more control over a social interaction and eliminates a GM being one-eyed in that circumstance.

The extra bookkeeping is frustrating

The current game that I am reading uses an attitude based system.  Each non-player character (NPC) will have an attitude that gives the GM an idea of how they react to the characters.  The particular structure of this game has seven different attitudes (awestruck, loyal, friendly, neutral, unfriendly, hostile and enemy).  This is an easy enough thing to track in a scene or encounter but what about a game where NPC’s frequently recur in the player characters (PC) lives?  What about games where the PC’s encounter the NPC’s separately and therefore the NPC has multiple attitudes to multiple characters in the same party?  This sort of game will require serious bookkeeping from the GM. Also a major commitment to a revision of that bookkeeping to keep the continuity of the NPC personality believable.  What happens when the NPC finds out the person they are loyal to is a close friend of their sworn enemy?  Sure, interesting premise but unless this bookkeeping is done it may never play out and the players may feel confused as to why it did not.

 Structure interrupts the role-playing

When you are in the middle of an encounter and there is a good conversation going on with an NPC should the GM call for a roll?  Should they just go with the feel of the encounter and deliver information based on what is happening?  This is a crucial question.  After all, the flow to the encounter is not actually the PC, it is the player that is playing them.  Should the elderly computer repairman tell them what he found on the hard drive because the encounter has flowed well?  Or should the GM note that the character is the social equivalent of a four-year-old child and ask for the roll?  There is no easy answer to this.  I am faced with a game where there is a strong emphasis on social abilities but I would likely say that I would not call for the roll.  In a game where you play an alter ego though there should be some other measure that means it is the alter ego that is represented not the player.

Social interaction in games is tricky

You may have read through all that and wondered where all my answers are?  I really want to have a discussion over these issues because as I consider my answers to these situations are not up to measure.  Are there groups out there that have these concepts down and run a seamless game?  I would love to know your secrets.  Help me, and others, make for a better game in social environments.  Keep rolling!

6 Comments


  1. I would recommend having the Player with whom the NPC has a relationship (good, neutral, or, bad), not that with the name of the NPC and a brief note. This allows the Party to have a varied and textured relationship to the NPC, while keeping the GM free from paperwork; if the NPC is regularly recurring, then each PC is responsible for RPing accordingly; more so if the system has PC personality traits as well (such as that X-thing from PbtA games where PCs have relationships with each other, etc.)

    I have a Player who doesn’t do PC social interaction well, but wants to convey his characters’ intentions, but is inarticulate in this regard, and so a lot of what would be RP defaults to rolls; this seems frustrating to him, but is the way forward rather than forcing him. I would prefer RP, always, but a GM is not a director, but rather, a travel agent.

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    1. I had never thought about doing things that way – thanks Kyrinn.

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      1. Perhaps write-up a Contacts sheet with the sorts of information you want to have for important NPCs, and you give them that information as it becomes important and known for the NPC. Then when you need the information they can recount it to you.

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  2. This is an issue I think about a lot as a fledgling GM and semi-experienced player. Combat in an RPG requires abstraction, as of course we can’t be jumping around with broadswords and flinging magic missiles at each other in real life, but a conversation between two characters? There’s no reason that can’t be done at the table, between player and GM.

    But at the same time, no one is playing themselves (or at least almost no one) in an RPG, which means a character isn’t going to have the same skills as the player. I, for example, love to play social characters. The dashing swashbuckler, the charming rogue or the impish bard. But as a person, I am not a social butterfly. Snappy comebacks and witty repartee are not my strong suits. Which makes playing these characters difficult. Because my first instinct in any given encounter is to be blunt and to the point, often including crude insults if it’s an enemy NPC, which often makes my characters appear far more brutish than I would like.

    That said, there is no real solution to this that I can see, beyond learning to reign in my own impulses and think more about how my character would actually respond in any given situation. As I would absolutely hate to start boiling down every conversation to a series of dice rolls.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the comments, Bryce. It is good to hear from my players and lets me know what they are thinking about these topics. This one does not have such a straightforward answer.

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  3. Here’s how I think about rolls in general: they’re levers the players can pull when they don’t like the way things are going. And the levers are usually risky.
    -Combat: The PCs have been ambushed by bandits. They can pay the “toll” the bandits are demanding, and walk away. No roll required. Or they can draw swords and let the dice decide who walks away with the spoils, and who doesn’t walk away at all.
    -Athletics: The PCs have come to a pit in the dungeon. They can’t see what’s at the bottom, but they hear distant skittering and slavering. The pit’s pretty wide, but they have poles and rope and grappling hooks, and the passage continues on the other side. They can go back the way they came. No roll required. Or they can try some fancy jumping or balancing, and let the dice decide whether they make it across or fall into a nest of… somethings.
    -Investigation: The local vampire crime lord hired them to do a job and then stiffed them on their pay. They do a little snooping and the GM gives them some info: he started operating here about fifty years ago, the locals are all terrified of him, etc. But the players want to learn his weaknesses: where he sleeps, what he’s afraid of, what kinds of limitations he seems to have, etc. These aren’t questions the local barkeep is just sharing freely with anyone and everyone; they’ll need to figure out who to ask and how to ask. They can leave it be or face the vampire without this extra intel. No roll required. Or they can do some serious poking around, roll the dice, and risk him finding out about their snooping.
    -Persuasion: The PCs urgently need to talk to Lord Highandmighty, who is attending a fancy ball, and they need to keep it secret. The guards aren’t inclined to let them in, as their names aren’t on the guest list. They can accept the rebuff and walk away, perhaps to try some other way of getting in. Or they can come up with a story and try to convince the guards to let them in anyway, roll the dice, and see whether the guards let them in… or have them arrested.

    I try not to require rolls for most things that are either necessary plot elements (like key clues in a mystery) or not risky (like trying to pick a lock when there’s no one around) or not likely to fail (like asking a friendly NPC for a minor favor.)

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